Is this the most bowler dominated era of cricket?

There is an increasing obsession to convince ourselves that everything we are seeing is the best it has ever been. It is a rampant obsession in almost every modern sport. There is a lot of discussion amongst the cricket fraternity currently about whether this bowler dominated era is making batting harder than it has ever been before. When I say era it would probably be more correct to say half decade, but following on from a superb piece on cricinfo a few weeks ago the debate needs to be expanded to look at how effective the batting against these bowling attacks is, too.

Dale Steyn is one of the finest fast bowlers of recent times – does he spearhead a bowler dominated era of Test cricket?

The most common thing to do when looking at players past and present is to put too much emphasis on comparing stats directly against one another. Whilst having Test match averages such as Don Bradman’s 99.94 means we know who was probably the best batsman to grace the game, the ability to compare Mike Atherton’s career average of 37.69 against Rory Burns’s average to date of 33.90 is much trickier. The game has changed so dramatically even in the time I have been following it (the first Test match I went to was England vs India in 1990) so comparing eras with stats alone can be futile.

However, it would be hard to argue with the suggestion that India’s pace attack, for instance, isn’t the best that they’ve ever had and, in truth, you don’t need to look at the numbers to determine that. Although they have produced talented pace bowlers such as Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan over the last 30 years, they have never had three or four of the quality of Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav that they have available now.

It would also be tricky to debate whether any England pace attack consisting of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad could not be their best simply because they are the nation’s two leading wicket takers. Nevertheless, the famed 2005 pace attack of Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones might possibly have been the most potent, but injury sadly meant we never saw that foursome in tandem again.

England’s 2005 seam attack of (Left to right) Hoggard, Harmison, Flintoff and Jones was arguably their finest ever, although injuries ensured they only came together for one magical summer of seam bowling

Elsewhere though it would be tricky to say with any certainty that the pace attacks of Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, or the West Indies are the best they have had. In fact, in the case of Pakistan and the West Indies we can categorically say it is a long way from the best pace attacks they have had because they have such a rich tradition in this field. Curtly Ambrose, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts and Courtney Walsh to name a few of the West Indies greats and for Pakistan the likes of Shoaib Akhtar, Wasim Akram, Imran Khan and Waqar Younis ruled supreme.

In the case of Australia there is probably a small argument to be had for the current generation but it’s impossible to look past the potency of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson’s era when they bullied teams with their pace and aggression, or the supreme side of the late 90s featuring Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath along with some fairly decent back up options (and a not too shabby leg spinner of course).

When you come to South Africa, options for their pace attack over recent years have been plentiful. In Dale Steyn they’ve probably produced the best fast bowler in recent memory but it would be hard to look beyond the pace attack they could field in the late 90s of Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock and a couple of overs from Jacques Kallis so they could rest.

So, we can see that the bowling in today’s era is clearly abundantly talented, but it would be hard to say that it is the greatest era we have seen. Listing out the bowlers and their wonderful strike rates and averages does not really tell the whole story though and to really analyze how strong an era this is, the batting must be closely examined too.

We are fortunate to witness players of the caliber of Babar Azam, AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson but the gap, in this era, between the truly great players and the rest is arguably greater now than it ever has been.

Steve Smith leads the way in modern Test batting, but there’s a gap between the best and the rest.

To look at this further I picked out one current series and one recently played series, then compared the batting averages to corresponding series 20 years ago. The current series is, of course, England Vs. West Indies and the recently played series is Australia Vs. Pakistan. I then looked back to the 1999/2000 Australia Vs. Pakistan series and the corresponding England Vs. West Indies series in 2000. Of course, this sample size is probably too small to provide any concrete evidence, but the findings were interesting and probably explain some other things.

I used the first Test of the series in both Australia and Pakistan games. The combined averages of those two teams in the most recent series were Australia with 377 runs and Pakistan with 259, which is a much larger swing than I had anticipated. Of course, Pakistan have introduced a few younger players in recent years who are still bedding into the side and the shining beacon of their batting line up, Babar Azam, has only recently started translating his wonderful white ball form into the Test arena. Still though, in Australia, starting with over 100 runs to the good in every innings surely made the series a nonevent before starting? Australia won both Tests by an innings.

When I went back and looked at the corresponding series 20 years ago the totals were Australia with 359 runs and Pakistan with 342 runs. Australia won the series comfortably but only won one Test by an innings. Pakistan’s more talented and consistent batsmen in that series at least ensured that Australian bowlers were not taking big wicket hauls for small amounts of runs.

Australia absolutely battered Pakistan in their 2019 Tst series down under

For the England Vs. West Indies series I used the first Test of the series in 2000 and the second Test of the current series because I wanted to ensure that England’s captain (and highest average run scorer), Joe Root was included. In 2000 England’s combined average was 266 with the West Indies totaling 323. England won the series 3-1. For the current game England total 350 and West Indies 265.

There are caveats to some of these numbers, though. England have picked a strong tail in the current game with Stuart Broad at number 11, who averages 18. They have also picked Sam Curran, who probably wouldn’t be in their strongest XI, who averages 27.

What this is starting to indicate, albeit from the tiny sample size, is that there is a huge gulf in the quality of some teams at the moment which probably contributes hugely to Cricinfo’s stat that “between Dec 14th 2017 to Feb 29th 2020 pace bowlers were taking their wickets at 26.26 which is the second lowest in history.”

It is also clear to see when you look at player stats over the last few years that Australia, England and India are playing more Test matches than everyone else combined. Since England’s loss to West Indies at the start of 2019, England have played 11 Tests in comparison to West Indies’ three. Whilst the disparity between the number of Tests has probably always varied to an extent, the scope for the lesser sides to improve is being taken away at a faster rate than ever before.

Of course, much of this is a result of the increased desire to pack stadia around the world for white ball games, which is the real money spinner of the modern game. With this increased focus on the other two formats the technical demands to succeed in Test cricket have become less fashionable and less appealing for younger players coming through. The evolution of the game has seen more focus on hitting cleanly rather than being able to negate tricky periods of batting in bowler friendly conditions.

Jason Roy’s struggles in Test cricket highlighted how modern white ball techniques aren’t necessarily suited to the Test game

As a result, the ability and necessity to defend has been viewed as more of an ‘old fashioned method’ rather than being what is needed to succeed in Test cricket. Even in Dominic Sibley’s hundred at Old Trafford in England’s first innings of the recent second Test there remain fans who think he scores too slowly and perhaps bringing someone like Jason Roy back into the Test side would improve it. We know it categorically wouldn’t of course, but it is a good example of how the thinking in modern cricket has changed.

In 2018 Jarrod Kimber wrote a brilliant piece on Cricinfo about how that year had seen the ‘lowest batting average per wicket since 1959 and conversely then the lowest bowling strike rate since 1922’. Part of this was a direct result of the disparity between bat and ball for a few years between 2014 and 2017 when batting averages soared almost across the board and players were being rewarded for playing attack minded cricket on surfaces that allowed them more scope to be less technically efficient.

There is no doubt that the bowling attacks have become stronger since 2017 and I was fortunate enough to watch almost all of the infamous South Africa Vs. Australia series in 2018 which, for the first two and half Tests certainly, was the best and most tightly fought contest I’ve seen in years because of the bowler friendly conditions. Of all the batting talent on display only AB de Villiers thrived and in truth looked like he was playing on a different plane to the rest. As Geoff Lemon said in his book Steve Smith’s Men; “This was a batsman who had surveyed the situation, got out his keyboard, and activated God Mode.” It really was quite phenomenal.

What he did that day though was not power hitting or slogging. It was proper Test match batting and he toyed with Australia’s attack. In a similar vein, the English public have been treated to two masterclasses at Edgbaston in recent years with Virat Kohli’s 149 in 2018 and Steve Smith’s 144 last summer and again neither of these were swashbuckling innings. They were the epitome of how to play Test cricket; absorb the pressure, be positive in defense and punish any rubbish.

Dominic Sibley represents a more patient way of batting – whilst he doesn’t always entertain, his successes so far speak volumes for his methods

However, some really seem to struggle with this concept and the modern obsession with getting bat on ball is one of the main reasons we’ve seen Joe Root’s huge descent from being talked about as one of the ‘big four’ to now being England’s second best batsman. He has everything to succeed in Test match cricket and did so earlier in his career, but Root typifies the struggle modern batsmen seem to have. They lack the patience to wait for the bad ball and feel that attack is the best form of defense because they have convinced themselves the bowlers will dominate. Sibley proved that simply is not the case if you apply yourself and resist temptation.

The current bowling attacks certainly don’t make it easy to score big runs, but it shouldn’t excuse England being bowled out for under 90 three times in a calendar year. The brittle nature of batting line ups has resulted in more occurrences of batting collapses in recent years than at any other point I can remember. There are some brilliant bowlers around in the game now certainly but to look at just the bowling averages without adding context about how poor some of the batting is doesn’t really tell the full story.

By Andy Hunter

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